Window on Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
First question: What are badlands? Second question: What’s so bad about them?
The most common answer isn’t all that helpful. Badlands are areas where the soil has been extensively eroded by wind and water. But many types of landforms result from erosion; take the Grand Canyon, for instance. It can hardly be considered a badland, so there must be more to the story.
The term badlands was coined by American Indian tribes living in the Midwest. The Lakotas called the area “mako sica,” meaning “bad lands.” It certainly was a tough place to make a living, thus, it was considered bad. People didn’t know the science of badlands back then. These areas formed over countless centuries of intense summer rains pounding an area with already steep slopes; loose, gravelly soil; and sparse vegetation. Sounds unsightly, doesn’t it? However, the results are far from ugly.
Badlands aren’t hard to find in North America. The best-known badlands are situated in North Dakota and South Dakota, northwestern Nebraska, and eastern Wyoming. A badlands area can be found in Alberta, Canada, too.
South Dakotans claim that their badlands, encompassing a total area of 2,000 square miles, are the best and the most extensive. We can’t vouch for that, but we can attest to their massive majesty. It took a long time and plenty of erosion to produce the bluffs, gullies, and canyons that mark this otherwise bare plateau. The results of all that erosion are formations both spectacular and colorful.
Badlands beginnings go far back to a time that was much different than today. For one thing, the climate was warmer than what we experience. Seventy-five million years ago a massive, shallow sea covered much of the region from Mexico to Canada, western Iowa to western Wyoming. Today the solid remnants of that ancient sea appear as a grayish-black, sedimentary rock called Pierre (pronounced “peer”) shale.
That ancient sea teemed with life, albeit not with critters we would recognize today. Over the millennia creatures died, sank to the bottom, and gradually turned to stone. Fossil remnants continue to weather out of the badland rocks, revealing the presence of large, squid-like animals, as well as tiny ancestors of clams, crabs, and snails. All once thrived in today’s badlands. Upper layers of shale also yield fossil remnants of manosaurs, pterosaurs, enormous marine lizards, and even flying reptiles.
It took eons of pushing and shoving by the continental plates to produce what we know as the Rocky Mountains. As the land rose the inland sea retreated, then drained away. The next phase was for the badlands to erode into the landscape we view today.
The newly emerged lands entered a warm and humid climate accompanied by abundant rainfall. The resulting dense, subtropical forest flourished for more millennia. Gradually the climate became cool and dry enough that the forest was replaced by grasslands.
Badlands aren’t dry year-round. Periods of heavy rain still occur, drawing human eyes to the vividly colored bands layering the faraway buttes. Fossils buried in those bands reveal the development of the badlands. The fossils themselves helped produce the chemicals that provide the colorful badland topography. Such color draws the eyes of tourists, but not as eagerly as they attract those of paleontologists. They were quick to recognize that one of the world’s great collections of fossilized mammals is entombed in those rocks.
Carefully analyzing pieces of rock and debris revealed fossilized remnants of animals ranging from the enormous to the small. All lived there, but not all at one time. Some thrived in the subtropical forests, while others lived in the savannas and grasslands that followed. Some of these fossils date back 23 million to 35 million years.
Among those now revealed are ancestors of modern-day deer, sheep, pigs, and horses. But you’ll also find the even more ancient ancestors of rhinoceroses and saber-toothed cats. Visitors to the badlands will enjoy seeing the fossils on display in museums and visitors centers, as well as living critters that have adapted to life on the prairie, such as deer, antelope, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs.
Human beings were late on the scene, having lived in the badlands a mere 11,000 years ago. The earliest of these to arrive made their living hunting mammoths. Not much more has been learned about them. It wasn’t until later that the ancestors of today’s American Indians appeared, hunting bison instead of mammoths. They didn’t “own” the prairie for long, however. Settlers of European descent soon arrived.
It wasn’t long before European immigrants outnumbered the Indians. Trappers were followed by miners, homesteaders, ranchers, and the soldiers needed to protect them all. The latter took on the job of subduing, moving, and/or killing tribespeople whose ancestors had lived there for centuries. Cattle supplanted the bison; wheat fields edged out the prairies; and eventually gasoline-powered vehicles replaced the plow horse.
How things have changed. Badland prairies once covered one-third of North America. Now just isolated remnants of native grasslands remain. Relatively few of the animals that thrived in the badlands are there today. The more visible survivors are the black-tailed prairie dog, mule deer, pronghorn, bison, coyote, and bighorn sheep.
Although we enjoy the badlands for the fossils, we are also attracted to the haunting landforms created over time by wind and water. Seen at sunrise, sunset, or on moonlit nights, the colorful clays take on magical shapes found nowhere else.
Fortunately, a number of these areas have been set aside as national parks or monuments. Check out Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, Badlands National Park in South Dakota, or perhaps Toadstool Geologic Park in Nebraska. Farther north are the badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, Canada, which also boasts one of the greatest dinosaur fossil beds in the world.
What’s so bad about badlands? It’s all a matter of perspective. And from our point of view, badlands are good.